Rescuing Kittens the Right Way
Just yesterday, a group of children brought me a box of kittens and asked me to "rescue" them. Their mothers had told them to put the kittens back where they found them. The kids were unhappy with that order and soon located me.
I'm the local cat rescuer, so it seemed logical to ask me. But the facts of the situation show how little people know about cats, kittens and proper rescue procedures. The mothers weren't too far off with their advice, except that it doesn't solve anything. It only would have helped these kittens survive in their current situation... maybe.
Are They Really Abandoned?
The first mistake the kids made was to assume the kittens were lost or abandoned. But when they approached and gathered them up, they saw the mother cat dart away. They then felt justified in assuming she was abandoning them, and if they were to survive, it would be up to them.
This action deprived the kittens of their mother, the one who is best equipped to raise them, and it deprived the mother cat of her young, to whom she is physiologically and instinctively committed. Without naturally weaning and releasing them herself, she will now go into heat soon and become impregnated again.
The overpopulation cycle actually speeds up with this simple theft of the young from the nest. It mimics what cats do: Roaming males, or tom cats, seek out females to reproduce with. If they find kittens they didn't father, they kill them, the female soon goes into estrus, and the male completes his mission to reproduce his own gene pool.
Have a Plan
So how can we end the overpopulation cycle? First, we have to be smarter than the cats. Simply collecting kittens without a plan only contributes to the stray cat problem. Even with barn cats, I no longer accept what farmers often call "excess" kittens without their mother, who must be spayed before they are returned to their barn life. (After accepting 3 litters from the same cat at one farm, I learned that these people weren't going to fix the problem, so I did, and it became a policy of my shelter that mothers, if available, must accompany surrendered kittens.)
This is how the children should have handled yesterday's litter:
When they discovered the crying kittens, all nestled together in a grass thicket or a wood pile, they should have called their local shelter (or some responsible adult who understands cats) to request help rescuing this little family. While waiting for help to arrive, their mission would be to keep an eye on things from a non-threatening distance. The mother cat would most likely return, and then might remove her babies to another, safer (in her mind) location. Cats seek privacy when they have babies to care for.
Call an Experienced Rescuer
Ideally, help would arrive before she moved any, in the form of someone with a trap. One or all of the kittens could be placed into it, as "bait." Then, when mama kitty goes in, you have them all safely confined and they can be moved.
Admittedly, that kind of luck is not common. Therefore, the next method is to gather the kittens and take them to a safe place, while a trap is set for the mother at that location. Keep enough distance so she will return to see if the babies are still there. Instead of using food as bait, place a cloth that has the kittens' scent on it inside the trap. If you put food in it, some other cat might go in to eat, and you will collect the wrong cat.
Never Leave a Trap Unwatched Too Long
The trap needs to be watched so you can take her quickly to join her young ones, probably to a shelter where she can attend to them in a comfortable, quiet setting. If they are put into a cage in the general, noisy or bustling surroundings, she might kill them, as mother cats often will refuse to raise a family in what they consider to be a threatening environment.
This is most likely to happen with feral cats, as they are afraid of humans. Strays, on the other hand, are usually abandoned former housecats and may be wary, but not terrified. (Warning: It's still wise to deal with all loose cats cautiously to avoid injury. Even a tame mother animal can be a tornado if frightened. Therefore, do not try to touch them.)
Feral moms should be spayed and vaccinated before being returned to their territories, while strays may be adoptable after they have weaned the little ones and have been spayed.
Though cats can reproduce at any time of the year, spring and summer are the most common seasons to bring new cats into the world. It's called Kitten Season, and is the time when most people encounter kittens in all kinds of scenarios and may try to "rescue" them. It's critical to do it correctly if you truly want them to survive. Dr. RJ Peters established a rescue shelter in 2002 and likes to share the lessons learned to help others.
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